How to Prevent Compassion Fatigue

September 12, 2017

Five ways to create an effective prevention strategy

It is the role of the behavioral health provider to extend empathy to patients during a session, but an overextension of one’s capacity can have detrimental results. Compassion fatigue is a real problem within the behavioral health industry, and many providers experience it over the course of their careers. It is characterized by physical and mental exhaustion and the severe limitation to feel empathy for others. Widely considered a form of secondary traumatic stress, compassion fatigue can develop into a serious occupational hazard with ethical and legal implications if left unchecked.

Preventive effort is an important strategy in battling compassion fatigue; unlike burnout, which tends to develop linearly over time, compassion fatigue can come on unexpectedly. The following are five strategies for preventing the onset of compassion fatigue.

Understand the signs

Being able to recognize symptoms will contribute to the prevention of compassion fatigue. Be on the lookout for early signs, including the following examples:

  • Mental and physical exhaustion
  • Reduced feelings of sympathy or empathy
  • Depersonalization
  • Diminished sense of career fulfillment
  • Feelings of inequity toward the therapeutic or caregiver relationship

Maintain boundaries

Empathy is critical in the provision of care. The temptation for some providers is to sacrifice one’s own emotional needs in the interest of increasing availability to patients, but this is a risky proposition that can produce real consequences. Giving enough without going overboard is sometimes a difficult line to walk, and there is no universal definition of the ideal output of compassion that providers should strive for. Ultimately, it is important for providers, as they extend compassion to their patients, to remain cognizant of their own emotional needs as well.

Keep a healthy work-life balance

Behavioral health care is very involved, and it’s common for providers to bring work home or think about it regularly during off-hours. A healthy life is that which is balanced, and this is especially true regarding time at work and home. Be sure to budget time to engage with hobbies and nurture friendships outside of work. Above all, remember that work is not the entirety of life.

Learn more about how behavioral health providers can maintain a healthy work-life balance by clicking here.

Remember to come up for air

Providers develop emotional stress vicariously through their patients. Practicing positive coping strategies—many of which can be done in the office—can help keep stress within manageable limits. Consider deep breathing exercises, meditation, or taking a walk during a break. At home, activities such as taking a relaxing bath, working in the yard, or simply watching a funny show on Netflix will go a long way. Try to avoid unhealthy outlets, such as excessive consumption of alcohol.

Consider personal therapy

Behavioral health professionals provide therapeutic services to patients, but they can be equally valuable to the provider as well. Personal therapy is a great way to help process emotions and resist the onset of compassion fatigue. An additional perspective is useful in honing the tools and strategies to prevent the development compassion fatigue, and a little extra moral support doesn’t hurt, either.

Compassion fatigue, if left unchecked, will invariably result in a myriad of problems. Providers that are willing to take proactive measures in its prevention will be better prepared to care for their patients with full emotional capacity.

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Last Updated: September 12, 2017